“HIV” stands for Human Immuno-deficiency Virus. It is a virus that attacks and slowly takes over the immune system - our body’s natural defense against illness and disease. HIV has no vaccine, and no cure. Once someone is infected, they will have the virus for the rest of their life.

When someone is infected, HIV has three main impacts on their health:

  1. Immune cell “hijacking”: When HIV infects an immune cell, it “hijacks” that cell, turning it from a body defense cell into an HIV factory. This is how HIV reproduces to out-of-control levels.
  2. Immune system loss: As more immune cells are “hijacked” by HIV, there are fewer and fewer healthy immune cells to fight the HIV in the system – and other diseases. Also, healthy immune cells will attack those that are infected with HIV, killing them off. This leaves the body with much less immune system than it needs to stay healthy.
  3. AIDS: Over time, the body’s immune system becomes so badly damaged by the HIV virus, it can’t fight off more serious illnesses. This stage of HIV infection is known as “AIDS”.

How can someone tell if they have HIV? Are there symptoms

The only way to know for sure if you’ve got HIV is to get a special blood test for HIV.

Some people get symptoms when they’re newly infected – but not everybody. These symptoms are called “Seroconversion Illness”. Seroconversion Illness is caused by the body’s immune system reacting to HIV, and it can sometimes feel like a cold or flu. It can also include such things as swollen glands, a rash, headache, nausea and/or diarrhea. But any of these things could happen to someone for lots of reasons - not just HIV. So, if you’ve had unprotected sex or shared a needle, the only way to know for sure if you’ve been infected with HIV is to get a special blood test for the virus.

Unfortunately, it’s almost impossible to find out right after possible exposure to HIV whether someone has been infected. There is a time-gap between when someone is exposed to HIV, and when a blood test can tell if they’ve been infected. This is known as the “Window Period”. There are a few different HIV tests out there, and each has a different window period. The most common test across Canada can detect evidence of HIV in the blood between 3-12 weeks after someone’s been infected. However, there are some that are more sensitive and can find the virus sooner.

What is AIDS?

“AIDS” stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome.

Someone can be diagnosed with AIDS when they have both HIV and a serious illness. The AIDS stage often follows several years of HIV infection, when the body’s immune system has been so destroyed by HIV that it can’t fight more serious illnesses or diseases.

Because illnesses can take over quickly when there is no immune system to fight them, someone in the AIDS stage can get very sick and die much more quickly than usual. However, with the right medical treatment at the right time, a person with an AIDS illness can often get rid of it and get better - but they will still have the HIV virus.